Editor's comment

Lindberg writes that preliterate people, no less than those of us who live in a modern scientific culture, have a need for explanatory principles capable of bringing order, unity, and especially meaning to the apparently random and chaotic flow of events.

Lindberg, David C. The Beginning of Western Science 1992 The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637 [abridged 1100 words] — the ancient and perennial search for order and meaning.

From the beginning, the survival of the human race has depended on its ability to cope with the natural environment. Prehistoric people developed impressive technologies for obtaining the necessities of life. They learned how to make tools, start fires, obtain shelter, hunt, fish, and gather fruits and vegetables. Successful hunting and food-gathering required a substantial knowledge of animal behavior and the characteristics of plants. At a more advanced level, prehistoric people learned to distinguish between poisonous and therapeutic herbs. They developed a variety of crafts, including pottery, weaving, and metalworking. By 3500 they had invented the wheel. They were aware of the seasons and perceived the connection between the seasons and certain celestial phenomena. In short, they knew a great deal about their environment.

But the word "know," seemingly so clear and simple, brings us to the distinction between technology and theoretical science. It is one thing to know how to do things, another to know why they behave as they do. It is possible to differentiate between poisonous and therapeutic herbs without possessing any biochemical knowledge that would explain poisonous or therapeutic properties. The point is simply that practical rules of thumb can be effectively employed even in the face of total ignorance of the theoretical principles that lie behind them. You can have "know-how" without theoretical knowledge.

It should be clear, then, that in practical or technological terms, the knowledge of prehistoric humans was great and growing. But what about theoretical knowledge? What did prehistoric people "know" or believe about the origins of the world in which they lived, its nature, and the causes of its numerous and diverse phenomena? Did they have any awareness of general laws or principles that governed the particular case? Did they even ask such questions? We have very little evidence on the subject.

Prehistoric culture is by definition oral culture; and oral cultures, as long as they remain exclusively oral, leave no written remains. However, an examination of the findings of anthropologists studying preliterate tribes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, along with careful attention to remnants of prehistoric thought carried over into the earliest written records, will allow us to formulate a few tentative generalizations.

Critical to the investigation of intellectual culture in a preliterate society is an understanding of the process of communication. In the absence of writing, the only form of verbal communication is the spoken word; and the only storehouses of knowledge are the memories of individual members of the community. The transmission of ideas and beliefs in such a culture occurs only in face-to-face encounters. The portion of these conversations considered important enough to remember and pass on to succeeding generations forms the basis of an oral tradition, which serves as the principal repository for the collective experience and the general beliefs, attitudes, and values of the community…

Here we are principally interested in the content of oral traditions, especially those portions of the content that deal with the nature of the universe –the portions, that is, which might be thought of as the ingredients of a world-view or a cosmology. Such ingredients exist within every oral tradition, but often beneath the surface, seldom articulated, and almost never assembled into a coherent whole. It follows that we must be extremely reluctant to articulate the world-view of preliterate people on their behalf. We may, nonetheless, formulate certain conclusions about the ingredients or elements of world-view within preliterate oral traditions. (The conclusions that follow are based on a mixture of evidence from prehistoric cultures and contemporary preliterate societies.)

It is clear that preliterate people, no less than those of us who live in a modern scientific culture, have a need for explanatory principles capable of bringing order, unity, and especially meaning to the apparently random and chaotic flow of events. But we should not expect the explanatory principles accepted by preliterate people to resemble ours: lacking any conception of "laws of nature" or deterministic causal mechanisms.

It is natural that in the search for meaning they should proceed within the framework of their own experience, projecting human or biological traits onto objects and events that seem to us devoid not only of humanity but also of life. Thus the beginning of the universe is typically described in terms of birth, and cosmic events may be interpreted as the outcome of struggle between opposing forces, one good and the other evil. There is an inclination in preliterate cultures not only to personalize but also to individualize causes, to suppose that things happen as they do because they have been willed to do so.

Oral traditions typically portray the universe as consisting of sky and earth, and perhaps also an underworld. An African myth describes the earth as a mat that has been unrolled but remains tilted, thereby explaining upstream and downstream - an illustration of the general tendency to describe the universe in terms of familiar objects and processes. Deity is an omnipresent reality within the world of oral traditions, though in general no clear distinction is drawn between the natural, the supernatural, and the human; the gods do not transcend the universe but are rooted in it and subject to its principles. Belief in the existence of ghosts of the dead, spirits, and a variety of invisible powers, which magical ritual allows one to control, is another universal feature of oral tradition. Reincarnation (the idea that after death the soul returns in another body, either human or animal) is widely believed in…

There is a strong tendency within oral traditions to identify causes with beginnings, so that to explain something is to identify its historical origins. Within such a conceptual framework, the distinction that we make between scientific and historical understanding cannot be sharply drawn and may be nonexistent. Thus when we look for the features of oral tradition that count for world-view or cosmology, they will almost always include an account of origins - the beginning of the world, the appearance of the first humans, the origin of animals, plants, and other important objects, and finally the formation of the community…

There is one last feature of belief in oral cultures (both ancient and contemporary) that demands our attention – namely, the simultaneous acceptance of what seem to us incompatible alternatives, without any apparent awareness that such behavior could present a problem… Nobody seems to notice, or to care, that all of them could not be true. The stories embodied in oral traditions are intended to convey and reinforce the values and attitudes of the community and to offer satisfying explanations of the major features of the world as experienced by the community.